Eye Music Revives a Memento of 1960s Openness

by Michael Schell

Sapporo, excerpt from score page 1.

Seattle’s Eye Music ensemble is a collection of ten-odd musicians specializing in the performance of graphic scores. Their new album on Edition Wandelweiser is a 50-minute traversal of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, a 1963 composition that hails from a unique crossroads in music history where East Asian aesthetics were being combined with Western avant-gardism by artists from both traditions eager for a fresh start.

Excerpt from Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, performed by Eye Music.

Ichiyanagi, born in Kobe in 1933, belongs to the breakout generation of Japanese composers that includes Tōru Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzumi and many others. Like his peers, Ichiyanagi saw parallels between the music of Webern (whose emphasis on sparse, isolated sound events was the springboard for the post-WW2 European avant-garde) and traditional Japanese music and painting (which likewise emphasized empty space and time). Eager to exploit this insight, Ichiyanagi came to New York in 1952, studying at Juilliard and later attending John Cage’s lectures at The New School in the company of his bohemian wife, a budding vocalist and conceptual artist named Yoko Ono. The couple returned to Japan in 1961, brought Cage over for his first Japanese tour, then divorced. Shortly thereafter, Ichiyanagi, deeply influenced by the graphic scores of Cage and his associate Earle Brown, composed Sapporo for “any number of performers up to fifteen.”

Ichiyanagi (left) with Mayuzumi and Ono in 1961.

Sapporo’s score consists of several loose-leaf sheets, assigned one per performer. Each sheet contains symbols denoting sustained sounds (horizontal lines), glissandos (angled lines) and short, accented sounds (dots), to be played over the course of the performance, whose duration and instrumentation (conventional or otherwise) are left to the discretion of the interpreters. Additional symbols mandate occasional points of interaction between the performers, but the majority of their actions are uncoordinated, lining up by chance.

The score excerpt above shows how the aesthetic of sparseness is implicit in the notation itself, guaranteeing that regardless of the musicians’ specific choices, the end result will be a slow-moving landscape marked by long tones (often sliding up or down) sprinkled with short sounds. Since the number of symbols on each page is fixed, the density and pacing of the music depends on the chosen length and ensemble size. A brief performance, such as the 14-minute 1972 recording by Ensemble Musica Negativa, will be dense and compact. A more discursive one, like Eye Music’s 50-minute rendering, will be drony and marked by numerous silences. The prevalence of glissandi is part of the work’s distinct sound environment, affirming a characteristic of the most enduring open-form works: that their core identity comes through in any good performance.

An illustrative passage begins at 2:15 of the Eye Music recording (see the linked audio sample above). A long silence is broken by a multiphonic from trombonist Stuart Dempster who plays a D♭ while singing the A♭ below it. This leads into a complex of sustained bowed string and percussion tones accompanied by a deep synth glissando and anchored by a low F♮ from Jay Hamilton’s cello. Dempster reenters with another multiphonic, this one sliding downward. When it concludes, it leaves behind a strange tremulous electric drone on A♮. More long tones from Dempster and flutist Esther Sugai appear before they’re cut off by a sharp pluck on a prepared electric guitar followed by a soft drum stroke. Another silence ensues before the next complex begins at 4:00.

The juxtaposition of silent sections with passages built on continuously-sounding drones and tremolos helps to avoid the sense of rhythmic regularity that often plagues performances of chance music. It also helps to fulfill the essential timelessness implicit in Ichiyanagi’s instructions. A proper performance of Sapporo has no real beginning or ending—it just starts and stops, emerging gently from its surroundings like a Japanese garden.

Eye Music (photo: Rachael Lanzillotta).

As the 1960s faded out, interest in open-form composition began to wane. Most musicians, it turned out, either wanted to be told exactly what to play, or else felt that through improvisation they could produce comparable results without having to share control or credit with a composer. Ichiyanagi returned to writing conventionally notated works, eventually packing an impressive work list with symphonies, operas and concertos for both Western and Japanese instruments. Among the highlights of his later career are Time Sequence (an unusual marriage of minimalist rhythm and atonal harmony reminiscent of Ligeti’s Continuum) and Paganini Personal (one of the more offbeat entries in the seemingly endless line of variations on Paganini’s last violin caprice). Today at 85, this old avant-gardist is regarded as the senior statesman of his craft in Japan.

Ichiyanagi in 2015 (photo: Koh Okabe via Japan Times).

Nevertheless, Sapporo continues to stand as one of the few classics of its genre. And Eye Music’s recording demonstrates why this Pacific Rim-based ensemble is particularly well-suited to its advocacy. With a diverse group of musicians drawn from the local drone, improv and electronic music communities, performing on a combination of conventional and homemade instruments of both acoustic and amplified means, Eye Music delivers an optimal mix of rigor and abandon to Ichiyanagi’s aleatory landmark. In this recording, their first for a major contemporary music label, they offer a snapshot of a zeitgeist best defined by its eager exploration of new freedoms: social, sexual, economic, political…and artistic.